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  • Brantwijn

Writing for National Novel Writing Month

Each book in the Dark Roads Saga, beginning with The Pact, started out as a project for the annual writer's marathon known as National Novel Writing Month. Every year, I sign up to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. No deleting, no editing, no stopping until the work is done, and I cross that finish line on November 30th with the golden 50k words under my belt.

And, naturally, every year I botch it up somehow. I ignore the rules... I start late. I wrap up early. I switch tactics in the middle. It's never a nice, neat, 1,667-word-a-day exercise. It's always some kind of beautiful mess.

If you think writing a 50,000 word novel in thirty days is hard, writing one in twenty days must seem damn near impossible. Every now and then I check the calendar and discover I'm already more than a week into November without a single word down, and I frantically try to caclulate how many words per day I have to crank out in order to finish on time. And then, I’m ashamed to say, a little part of me whispers maybe you shouldn’t bother...

The fact is, though, that NaNoWriMo isn’t really about writing 50,000 words in 30 days. It might seem like that at first. 50k is definitely the end goal. But the real spirit of NaNoWriMo, the real benefit to undertaking this daunting writing challenge, is the exercise of writing anything at all.

Lots of writers, professional and amateur, flock to join the NaNo crowds every November, across the world. Of course we all want to cross that finish line. But let us not forget that many of us might not have put pen to paper at all without the invigorating catalyst of this annual self-imposed challenge.

I actually started my very first National Novel Writing Month late. I joined up about a week into the race, with no experience whatsoever in the community or the culture of the thing. I figured for sure I wouldn’t finish .I’d get bogged down somewhere along the way and peter out altogether.

I also "broke" the “rules” that year, too, by caving to my inner editor and deleting about 5000 words in the last week, because I was unable to go on without correcting a series of scenes I just didn’t believe in. In future years, that home-stretch slash-and-burn became par for the course for me. Always in the last week, I’d find a great big chunk of narrative, sometimes chapters long, that simply had to go.

And still - start late, cut with impunity, edit obsessively - I always did end up making it past the finish line on time.

Two years in a row, I hit my 50,000 words by halfway through the month. Who knows what possessed me and how I managed to write so much, so fast, and be satisfied enough with it that I counted it all as good. Last year I was up until just before midnight on November 30th desperately trying to get down just enough words to validate before the contest ended.

Here’s what I’ve learned in ten years of writing novels during the month of November. NaNoWriMo is entirely what you make of it. This is a chance for you, as a writer, to explore your options. Try a new plot you’ve been playing with, but were maybe afraid to embark on. It’s a chance to learn new ways to combat writer’s block, with word sprints and writing prompts and group exercises. One of my favorites is the Traveling Shovel of Death. Haven’t heard of it? It’s part NaNo challenge, part inside joke. At some point in your story you should include a shovel. That shovel should then play a part in a death. If you haven’t included it in one of your books, I’m giving it my full endorsement. The Traveling Shovel of Death is pure NaNo gold.

A few years ago, my local NaNoWriMo admin found out I was part of the My Little Pony fandom, so he challenged me to include two of the ponies in my next NaNo scene. Sure, that sounds ridiculous. Until I tell you that the next scene I meant to write was a dark scene filled with tension, where my main character must, by sheer strength of will, push through a tide of angry demons attempting to spirit her soul away to the corners of a metaphysical wasteland. Then the idea’s not ridiculous at all...it’s patently absurd and potentially ruinous.

I did it anyway. Not in any way you’d recognize, mind you...that’s always the most fun part of incorporating challenges into a novel: finding a way to make them fit in your story, and become truly a part of it, through and through. You will probably never find recognizable little ponies in my books, but now you know that once upon a time, in a NaNoWriMo community, the idea was proposed, and it became a step on the path to a completed story.

This is not about meeting some magic number for anyone else’s benefit. This is about challenging yourself, pushing your boundaries, learning more about stories and style, and about how to write. This is about building a skill, and building a story, with a drive to see just how good you can make it. And to those of you who start late, or start on time and still sweat over those 50,000 words, just remember: NaNoWriMo is what you make it, and what you take away from it, on December 1st


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